A comedian with a loud, bouncy persona, Bobby Ball – who has died aged 76 – was half of one of two double-acts that came out of the northern working-class comedy scene to dominate Saturday night family entertainment through the 1980s, regularly attracting audiences of more than 10 million.
With Tommy Cannon, he fronted Cannon and Ball, which ran on ITV from 1979 to 1988. For all of that period, their BBC rivals were Little and Large. And the two duos had such similar backgrounds and televisual trajectories that their histories feel indelibly linked.
Both pairs achieved considerable celebrity and wealth as a result of a sudden gap in the supply of peak-time double acts. This was caused by the winding down of Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies, the masters of the British two-man sketch show, who became less visible on air due largely to medical issues.
Because Morecambe and Wise emerged from the north-west music hall circuit, TV’s search for successors tended to focus on that region. Ball, like Cannon, came from Oldham, where they had met working as welders in the same factory. Large, though from Glasgow, was an adopted north-westerner by the time he met the Lancastrian Little.
Just as Morecambe and Wise had been born Eric Bartholomew and Ernest Wiseman, the second wave of comedians from the region adopted stage names. If they had followed their birth certificates, Little and Large would have been Mead and McGinnis, with Cannon and Ball billed as Derbyshire and Harper.
The younger pairs also both chose showbiz pseudonyms that played with the physical dissimilarity that has been an aspect of double-acts since Laurel and Hardy. Little was slight and Large tubby; less literally, Cannon was long and thin, Ball small (5ft 3ins) and round.
Another overlap between them is that the enduring catchphrase of each act was a sarcastic reference by the more energetic comic to the gormless passivity of his partner. “Rock on, Tommy!,” the braces-twanging Ball would encourage the other, whose association with rock more involved solidity than movement. The joke was much the same as the hyperactive Large nicknaming the somnolent Little “supersonic”.
Cannon and Ball’s first television success grew out of a TV failure. In late 1978, Michael Grade, then running the ITV region’s southern powerhouse London Weekend Television, launched Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night, an attempt to build the entire ITV Saturday night schedule around Forsyth, who linked different segments. In their TV breakthrough, Cannon and Ball filmed sketches for the venture, many left unused as the format was restructured, in response to poor reviews, to make more use of Forsyth.
This, though, helped to avoid the comedians being too associated with Forsyth’s Big Night, when it was abandoned as a high-profile flop, and Grade, admiring the duo’s contributions, used them to fill some of the hole in his Saturday night schedule.
Cannon and Ball launched on 28 July, 1979 at 8pm, in a half-hour slot before the popular Nicholas Parsons gameshow, Sale of the Century. In its Saturday preview, the Guardian noted that “clubland duo Tommy and Bobby get their first series, mixing standup and sketches.” But, in the Weekend TV Review on the following Monday, Nancy Banks-Smith found four other shows more worthy of review.
Although Cannon and Ball were huge ratings weapons for around a decade, they, in common with Little and Large, have donated no particular jokes or moments to television posterity. When they chose their own favourite material for a show called The Very Best Of Cannon and Ball, they kicked off with a long silent comedy sketch set on an aeroplane (a typical gag involving persuading a female flight attendant to bend over), a sequence in which they fail to play golf with the comedian Jimmy Tarbuck, and a weird piece in which Cannon sings a “very favourite song” (Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns), while Ball puts on Pierrot makeup. The innocent silliness of their work, though, may have risen from, and suited, the nervous mood of British TV during the censorious Thatcher administrations.
Their TV success resulted in one movie, The Boys in Blue (1983), in which Bobby and Tommy played policemen under threat of being fired unless they found some crime to solve. Coppers often seemed to be the nature not just of the characters but of the budget, and the Time Out film guide described the work as “witless babble”.
Morecambe and Wise also made poor movies, but compensated with immortal TV work, of a sort their immediate imitators never achieved. This lack of a classic sketch, along with catchphrases about the boringness of one of the performers, consign both Cannon and Ball and Little and Large to the middle rank of TV comedy far below Morecambe, Wise, Barker and Corbett, whose huge shoes they managed to stand in for a while.
There were a couple of other ITV projects after Cannon and Ball ended, followed by a quiet spell, from which they emerged through the showbiz second chance salon of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! in 2005. This led to cameo appearances, including, for Ball, in the sitcoms Last of the Summer Wine and Not Going Out. Unlike many double-acts, Tommy and Bobby remained close; having both become born-again Christians, they toured a gospel show in later years.
In a last melancholy coincidence, both Cannon and Ball and Little and Large have been halved by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed Ball, after killing Eddie Large in April. Neither act will have the box set or rerun longevity of the greatest TV comedians, but they do have a place in the chronicles of the medium for keeping huge audiences amused for many years.